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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot SD870 IS Digital ELPH  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: November 12, 2007
Last Updated: January 3, 2012

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The Canon PowerShot SD870 IS Digital ELPH ($399) is an ultra-compact camera with a wide-angle lens, huge 3-inch LCD display, and all the bells and whistles that you'd expect on a point-and-shoot camera in 2007. The SD870 is sort of a combination of the SD750 (for the LCD) and the SD800 (for the wide-angle lens), though that's not "official".

Canon's model numbering is so confusing that I decided to make two charts to help you make sense of it. First up, we have a Digital ELPH family tree:

USA model names shown - click to see European model names

Canon's official line is that the SD870 is the replacement to the SD800, though as I mentioned, it takes cues from the SD750 as well.

Now, here's a look at how the various Digital ELPH models compare:

Feature PowerShot SD800 IS PowerShot SD850 IS PowerShot SD870 IS PowerShot SD950 IS PowerShot SD1000
Street price
(at time of posting)
$296 $288 $336 $412 $187
Resolution 7.1 MP 8.0 MP 8.0 MP 12.1 MP 7.1 MP
Optical zoom 3.8X 4X 3.8X 3.7X 3X
Lens max. aperture F2.8 - F5.8 F2.8 - F5.5 F2.8 - F5.8 F2.8 - F5.8 F2.8 - F4.9
Focal length (35 mm equiv.) 28 - 105 mm 35 - 140 mm 28 - 105 mm 36 - 133 mm 35 - 105 mm
Image stabilization Yes Yes Yes Yes No
LCD size 2.5" 2.5" 3.0" 2.5" 2.5"
LCD resolution 207,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels
Optical viewfinder Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Face detection Yes Yes Yes (enhanced) Yes (enhanced) Yes
Redeye reduction tool No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Movie mode file size limit 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
Battery used NB-5L NB-5L NB-5L NB-5L NB-4L
Battery life (CIPA standard) 270 shots 230 shots 270 shots 240 shots 210 shots
Dimensions (W x H x D) 3.5 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 3.7 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.1 in. 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in.
Weight 150 g 165 g 155 g 165 g 125 g

The biggest changes on the SD870 compared to its predecessor include a higher resolution sensor (of course), a larger LCD, enhanced face detection, and in-camera redeye removal. Unfortunately, the optical viewfinder disappeared along the way.

I was a big fan of the PowerShot SD800. So much so, in fact, that I bought one for myself. Is the SD870 a worthy successor? Find out now in our review!

The PowerShot SD870 IS is known as the Digital IXUS 860 IS in some countries.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot SD870 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 8.0 effective Megapixel PowerShot SD870 IS Digital ELPH camera
  • 32MB Secure Digital memory card
  • NB-5L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions
  • 241 page camera manual (printed)

Canon is one of the few camera manufacturers who still includes a memory card in the box, instead of building it right into the camera. The 32MB SD card that comes with the SD870 won't hold many photos (eight, to be exact), so you'll want a larger card right away. The camera supports the SD, SDHC, MMC, and MMCplus memory card formats, and I'd suggest starting out with a 1GB card. It's worth spending the extra money for a high speed SD or SDHC card.

The SD870 uses the same NB-5L lithium-ion battery as its predecessor. This battery has 4.1 Wh of energy, which isn't bad for a camera of this size. Here's how the SD870 compares to the competition in terms of battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Canon PowerShot SD870 IS */**/*** 270 shots
Casio Exilim EX-S880 220 shots
Fuji FinePix F480 ** 150 shots
HP Photosmart R847 *** 210 shots
Kodak EasyShare M883 *** 200 shots
Nikon Coolpix S51 */*** 150 shots
Olympus FE-290 */*** 175 shots
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55 */**/*** 280 shots
Pentax Optio V10 *** 200 shots
Samsung L74 Wide **/***/**** 200 shots
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70 */*** 270 shots

* Has image stabilization
** Has wide-angle lens
*** Has 3-inch LCD
**** Number not officially calculated with CIPA standard

Battery life numbers are provided by the camera manufacturers

You can figure out who the SD870's main competitor is just by looking at that chart -- it's the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55. It's this same camera that just edges out the SD870 in terms of battery life. Don't worry too much, though -- the SD870's numbers are still 27% above average.

I should mention a couple of "gotchas" regarding the proprietary battery used by the SD870 (and every other camera on that list). For one, they're fairly expensive -- an extra NB-5L will set you back at least $40. Secondly, if that battery dies, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery like you could on a camera that uses AAs. That said, you won't find a camera this size that uses anything else.

When it's time to charge the battery, just snap it into the included charger. This is my favorite type of charger: it plugs directly into the wall. It takes around a little over two hours for a full charge.

Like all ultra-compact cameras, the SD870 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to deal with.

There are just a few accessories available for the PowerShot SD870. The most interesting is probably the WP-DC17 underwater case ($185), which lets you take the camera up to 40 meters below sea level. Next we have the HF-DC1 external slave flash (priced from $90), which attaches via the tripod mount and fires when the onboard flash does, giving you more flash range and less redeye. Last, but not least, we have the ACK-DC30 AC Adapter (priced from $45), which lets you power the camera without draining your battery.

CameraWindow in Mac OS X

You'll find version 31 of Canon's Digital Camera Solutions software inside the SD870's box. Canon has given their software a refresh, with the ImageBrowser (Mac) and ZoomBrowser (Windows) products now up to version 6. The Mac version is now Universal, so it runs at full speed on Intel-based Macs.

The first part of the Browser software that you'll probably encounter is Camera Window, and you'll use it to download photos from your camera.

ImageBrowser in Mac OS X

Once that's done you'll find yourself in either ImageBrowser or ZoomBrowser, depending on your computer. Here you can view, organize, e-mail, and print your photos. If you categorized any photos on the camera (more on this later) then that information is transferred over to the Browser software.

ImageBrowser edit window in Mac OS X

Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll bring up the edit window. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, and the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve. There's also an auto adjustment option for those who want a quick fix.

PhotoStitch in Mac OS X

A totally separate program called PhotoStitch can, well, stitch together separate photos into one giant panorama. The interface is simple, the process takes minutes, and the results are impressive, as you can see. You can use the SD870's Stitch Assist feature to line up the photos side-by-side with just the right amount of overlap.

Canon has combined the Basic and Advanced manuals from previous PowerShots into a single, thick book on the SD870. The manual is quite detailed, with every feature and option covered. At the same time, it's not terribly user friendly. Still, as camera manuals go, it's better than most. Canon also includes separate manuals describing direct printing and the software bundle.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SD870 really is a combination of the SD750 and SD800 in terms of design. It has the shape and size of the SD800, and the glossy black backside (and 3-inch LCD) of the SD750. It's a very compact (but not tiny) camera made of a mixture of plastic and metal. It's generally well put together, save for the flimsy plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment and a plastic tripod mount.

Ergonomics are pretty good. The camera is easy to hold with one hand, and the most important controls are right where you'd expect it. I didn't care for the size of the four-way controller, nor the fact that my right thumb ended up resting on it.

Images courtesy of Canon USA

Like some of the other ELPHs, the SD870 comes in two "trims" -- silver and black.

Okay, now it's time to look at how the SD870 compares to other ultra-compacts in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD870 IS 3.7 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 8.5 cu in. 155 g
Casio Exilim EX-S880 3.7 x 2.4 x 0.7 in. 6.2 cu in. 128 g
Fujifilm FinePix F480 3.8 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 140 g
HP Photosmart R847 3.9 x 2.5 x 1.1 in. 10.7 cu in. 204 g
Kodak EasyShare M883 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 116 g
Nikon Coolpix S51 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 6.6 cu in. 125 g
Olympus FE-290 3.9 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 8.6 cu in. 142 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.7 cu in. 143 g
Samsung L74 Wide 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 8.9 cu in. 174 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70 3.5 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.2 cu in. 128 g

The SD870 is one of the larger and heavier cameras in this ground, eclipsed only by the HP Photosmart R847. Don't worry though, it's still small enough to fit in just about any pocket.

Let's start our tour of the SD870 now, beginning (as always) with the front view.

The PowerShot SD870 has the same F2.8-5.8, 3.8X optical zoom lens as the SD800 before it. The focal length of this lens is 4.6 - 17.3 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 105 mm. Yep, that's wider than you'll find on your typical ultra-compact camera. Not surprisingly, you cannot attach conversion lenses to this camera.

The SD870 features Canon's optical image stabilization (OIS) system. Most photographers are familiar with the effects of "camera shake", which can blur your photos, especially in low light, or at the telephoto end of the lens. Sensors inside the camera detect this motion, and the SD870 shifts one of its lens elements to counteract it. It won't work miracles, nor can it freeze a moving subject, but it will allow you to use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. Want an example? Have a look at this:

Image stabilizer off

Image stabilizer on

Both the above photos were taken at the very slow shutter speed of 1/3 second. As you can see, the OIS system (in "shooting only" mode here) produced a noticeably sharper photo.

To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's built-in flash. The flash range has expanded a bit since the SD800 (which is good) news: it's now 0.3 - 4.0 m at wide-angle and 0.3 - 2.0 m at telephoto. If you want more flash power (and potentially less redeye) then you may want to consider the external slave flash I mentioned earlier.

Moving to the left now, we find the camera's AF-assist lamp, which also serves as the visual countdown for the self-timer. The camera uses the AF-assist lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations.

You can't miss the 3-inch LCD on the back of the PowerShot SD870, as it takes up most of the available space. The LCD is enormous, though it has the same 230,000 pixel resolution as a typical 2.5" display. Despite that, the screen was nice and sharp in my opinion. Outdoor visibility is great, assuming that you're not wearing polarized sunglasses. If you do wear them (like me) then you may have trouble seeing the screen when the camera is in the normal landscape orientation. See my discussion of this issue in the PowerShot G9 review for more info, though it's not as bad here. Low light visibility is very good as well -- the screen brightens automatically in those situations, though the view is a bit grainy.

One of the casualties of the upgrade to a 3-inch LCD was the optical viewfinder (found on the SD800, but not the SD750). This may bother some folks, but others won't care. So, it's kind of your personal decision.

To the right of the LCD you'll find four buttons, plus a unique four-way controller. I'll start with the top two button, which are for entering playback mode, and printing and sharing your photos (among other things). When connected to a computer, you can transfer your photos by pressing the Print/Share button (which will light up), and you can even choose your desktop background right from the camera. If you're hooked into a PictBridge-enabled photo printer, this is how you'll make prints. In playback mode, the Print/Share button opens up the My Category feature that I'll describe later. Finally, it can be used to activate the Auto ISO Boost feature that I'll tell you about later in the review.

Below the Print/Share button you'll find the SD870's four-way controller. Not only can this controller move in the usual up/down/left/right directions, but it can also be "rotated" by running your finger around the edge of it (the dial doesn't actually turn). It doesn't work nearly as well on an iPod though, probably due to the controller's small size. Rotating the dial lets you scroll through menus or quickly move through your photos. Using the directional buttons will navigate the menus, and also:

  • Up - ISO (Auto, Hi Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600) + Jump (Quickly moves through photos in playback mode)
  • Down - Drive (Single shot, continuous, self-timer [2 or 10 sec, custom]) + Delete photo
  • Left - Focus (Normal, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, flash on, flash off)
  • Center - Function Menu (see below) + Set

There are two Auto ISO modes on the PowerShot SD870. The difference between the two is that "Hi" mode uses higher sensitivities than the regular one. I'd use the Hi Auto mode only if you know that your prints will be small, as photos can be pretty noisy. I'll have more on the camera's ISO performance later in the review.

While it won't win any awards for speed, the SD870's burst mode is still pretty good for a camera in this class. With a high speed memory card, you'll be able to shoot an unlimited number of images at 1.3 frames/second. There is a brief blackout between each shot on the LCD, though you still should be able to follow a moving subject.

Function menu

By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu. This menu has the following options:

  • Shooting mode (Auto, manual, digital macro, color accent, color swap, stitch assist) - see below
  • Special scene mode (Portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, aquarium, underwater) - only displayed with mode switch set to SCN
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Long shutter mode (Off, 1 - 15 sec)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - this last option lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting
  • My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, custom color) - see below
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)

The Stitch Assist feature helps you line up photos side-by-side, for later "stitching" into a single panoramic photo. A digital macro option locks the lens at wide-angle and lets you be just 3 cm from your subject. To get closer you can use the digital zoom, but that reduces image quality if you're shooting at the highest resolution. To really take advantage of this feature you'll want to lower the resolution, which allows you to use a bit of digital zoom without reducing the quality of the photo.

The color accent and color swap options are part of the larger My Colors feature. Color accent turns a photo to black & white, preserving only the color you select. Color swap does just as it sounds -- you swap one color for another. They're fun, but not terribly useful features. The other My Colors features are in a separate menu, and they should be self-explanatory. Buried in there you'll find the custom color option, which allows you to adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, plus red/green/blue and skin tone levels.

The long shutter mode lets you select a slow shutter speed (from 1 - 15 secs), which is needed for night shots like the ones you'll see later in the review.

Below the four-way controller you'll find the Display and Menu buttons. The former toggles the information shown on the LCD display, while the latter does exactly as it sounds.

The first thing to see on the top of the camera is the speaker, located on the left side of the photo. To the right of that is the mode switch, which offers movie, scene, and record mode as its options. To the right of that is the power button, with the microphone above that (watch your fingers!).

At the far right we have the zoom controller, which is wrapped around the shutter release button. The lens moves from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.4 seconds. I counted just eight steps in the camera's 3.8X zoom range. Something that drives me nuts about the SD870 (and other recent ELPHs) is that the current zoom setting isn't shown on the LCD. Why this is omitted is beyond me -- Canon's other cameras have it.

Nothing to see here.

On the other side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. The ports here include USB and A/V out. Like all of Canon's cameras, the SD870 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your computer.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a plastic tripod mount as well as the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment feels especially flimsy. As you can probably tell, you won't be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NB-5L battery is shown at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot SD870 IS Digital ELPH

Record Mode

The PowerShot SD870 takes off like a rocket -- you'll wait just 0.7 seconds before you can start taking photos.

No live histogram here

Focusing performance was very good. In the best case scenario (wide-angle and/or lots of light), the SD870 locked focus in 0.1 - 0.3 seconds. Telephoto shots didn't take much longer -- focus times rarely got past one second. Low light focusing was superb, due in part to the camera's AF-assist lamp.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds at which it sometimes occurs.

Shot-to-shot delays are minimal. You'll wait about 1 second before you can take a shot without the flash, and about three seconds with it.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button ("down" on the four-way controller).

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the camera:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 32MB card
# images on 1GB card (optional)
3264 x 2448
Superfine 3.4 MB 8 278
Fine 2.0 MB 14 462
Normal 980 KB 29 958
Wide (16:9)
3264 x 1832
Superfine 2.5 MB 11 366
Fine 1.5 MB 18 614
Normal 736 KB 39 1284
Medium 1
2592 x 1944
Superfine 2.4 MB 11 380
Fine 1.4 MB 20 678
Normal 695 KB 41 1342
Medium 2
2048 x 1536
Superfine 1.6 MB 18 590
Fine 893 KB 32 1058
Normal 445 KB 64 2082
Medium 3
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 29 942
Fine 558 KB 52 1678
Normal 278 KB 99 3180
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 111 3554
Fine 150 KB 171 5494
Normal 84 KB 270 8634

The SD870 also has a "postcard" size that you can select, which is the same resolution as Medium 3. This is the only setting that lets you print the date on your photos.

There's no RAW or TIFF image support on the SD870, nor would I expect there to be.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The SD870 has the same menu system as the other cameras in the SD series. Note that some menu options are not available while in the automatic and scene modes. With that in mind, here's what's in the record menu:

  • AF frame (Face detect, AiAF, center) - see below
  • AF frame size (Normal, small) - see below
  • Digital Zoom (Off, 1.6X, 2.0X, Standard) - see below
  • Slow synchro (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Custom self-timer - a very handy feature
    • Delay (0-10, 15, 20, 30 secs)
    • Number of shots (1 - 10)
  • Auto ISO shift (Off, Print/Share button, on) - see below
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Review info (Off, detailed, focus check) - what info is shown in the post-shot review; I'll talk about these in the playback section
  • Save original (on/off) - whether an unretouched copy of a photo taken in My Colors mode is saved
  • Auto category (on/off) - puts photos into categories based on your shooting mode; more on this later
  • Display overlay (Off, gridlines, 3:2 guide, both)
  • IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - only works when using postcard resolution!!
  • Set Print/Share button (Off, exposure compensation, white balance, custom WB, digital tele-converter, display overlay, record movie, LCD off, play sound effect) - redefine what this button does

The camera detected all six faces

There are three focus modes on the PowerShot SD870 (Canon calls them AF frames). The first one is face detection, which every camera seems to have this year. The SD870 has Canon's "enhanced" face detection, meaning that it can find up to 35 faces in the frame, which is good news for football teams, I guess. Canon's implementation of this feature is very good -- the camera could detect all six faces in my test scene.

The two focus point sizes

If the camera doesn't see any faces in the frame then you'll get regular 9-point autofocus. If you don't want the camera to look for faces, you can select either 9-point AiAF or center-point focusing. If you're using center-point focusing, you can select the size of the focus point -- normal or small.

I want to briefly mention the camera's digital zoom feature, since it can be useful in some situations. Canon calls the 1.6X and 2.0X options a "digital tele-converter" -- it's basically just fixed digital zoom. The Standard option is what you'll find on every camera -- it just enlarges the center of the frame digitally. The camera's Safety Zoom feature warns you when you pass the point where image quality is degraded. When you're shooting at the highest resolution that starts as soon as digital zoom kicks in, but if you're using a lower resolution you can use it for a little while before that happens (e.g. you can go up to 6.1X total zoom at the M2 resolution). This feature isn't unique to Canon cameras (Panasonic has been doing it for a few years), and you can do the same thing in your favorite photo editor, if you want.

Auto ISO shift is a really handy feature in my opinion. If you halfway press the shutter release button and get the flashing red "shake warning", you can press the blinking Print/Share button, and the camera will choose an ISO that will result in a sharp photo. You can also have this feature run automatically. ISO boosting features are really best suited for those making small prints, as photos can be quite noisy at high ISOs.

There are three different modes for the image stabilizer. Continuous mode activates the IS system as soon as you halfway-press the shutter release, which helps you compose your photo without any camera shake. Shoot only doesn't activate the system until the photo is actually taken, which is more effective at stopping blur than the continuous mode. Panning mode only stabilizes for up and down motion, and you'll want to use this when you're tracking a moving subject. You can also turn image stabilization off entirely, which you'll want to do when the camera is on a tripod.

There's also a setup tab in all the menus, which has the following options:

  • Mute (on/off) - turns off all the beeps
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • Touch icons (on/off) - the LCD shows what direction you're pressing the four-way controller
  • LCD brightness (-7 to +7 in 1 step increments)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Time Zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time
  • Clock display (0-10 sec, 20 sec, 30 sec, 1-3 mins) - yes, the camera doubles as a clock
  • Card format
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
  • Create folder
    • Create new folder - on the memory card
    • Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Lens retract (1 min, 0 secs) - how quickly the lens retracts when you switch to playback mode
  • Language
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Print Method (Auto, PictBridge)
  • Reset all - back to defaults

An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. The software included with the camera lets you use your own photos and sounds as well. You can also turn off all the screens and sounds as well, which might not be a bad idea.

That's enough for menus, let's talk about photo quality now.

The PowerShot SD870 turned in a pretty good performance in our macro test. The subject is nice and sharp, yet it retains the "smooth" look that Canon cameras are known for. My only complaint is that there's a bit of greenish cast -- looks like the custom white balance feature didn't read my studio lamps terribly well. This won't be an issue for the vast majority of people, though.

There's really only one macro mode on the PowerShot SD870 (I don't think that the digital macro mode counts). In the "regular" macro mode you can be as close to your subject as 3 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto, which is pretty good.

The night scene looks very nice as well, especially with those nice reflections on the Bay (which is not an indicator of camera quality, by the way). The camera brought in plenty of light, and I used the long shutter speed feature to do so. The buildings are sharp, noise levels are low, and purple fringing was minimal. I noticed some small amounts of noise reduction artifacting on the water, but not nearly enough to concern me.

There are two ISO tests in this review. The first one uses the night scene above, so you can see how noise levels look at high ISOs in low light situations. Since I can't select shutter speeds faster than 1 second, the test stops at ISO 400. The studio ISO test later in the review will show the whole range. And with that, here we go:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

The isn't much of a difference between the first two crops. At ISO 200, noise and noise reduction artifacting become visible, taking out some detail with it. Still, you can make a small or midsize print at that sensitivity. At ISO 400 things get noticeably worse, so I'd save this setting (and those above it) for desperation only.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot SD870's 28 - 105 mm lens. If you want to see what this does to your real world photos, look no further than the building on the right side of this photo. There are some other lens-related issues to mention here, and they are the tradeoffs that come with having a small camera with a wide-angle lens. First up is vignetting, which is a darkening of the corners of the frame. It appeared a few times, but it wasn't horrible. More noticeable was corner blurriness, which you can see very well in this photo. These issues won't be visible in your typical 4 x 6 inch print, but if you're making large prints or viewing the photos at 100% on your computer screen, they'll be hard to miss.

Compact cameras almost always have redeye problems, and the SD870 is no exception. The shot above was taken with the redeye reduction feature turned on, which blasts your eyes with the AF-assist lamp right before the photo is taken. As you can see, that didn't help. The good news is that Canon finally put a redeye removal tool into the playback mode of their cameras. And, look, it works:

That's quite an improvement if you ask me. It would be nice if this feature could be activated automatically after you take a flash photo, but hey, I'll take what I can get.

Here's that second ISO test I promised you. This one is taken in the studio, and the results can be compared to those from other cameras I've reviewed. While the crops give you a hint about the noise levels at each ISO setting, I highly recommend viewing the full size images to get the most out of this test. And with that, here are the crops of the above scene (which has the same slight green cast as the macro shot):

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

The first three crops look great. There's no noise, and minimal noise reduction artifacting. Detail loss starts to appear at ISO 400 (due to noise reduction), though I see no reason why you can't make a midsize print at this setting. Noise becomes quite evident at ISO 800, and you'll notice that Canon doesn't pour on the noise reduction to get rid of it, which helps retain details. If you don't mind running your photos through noise reduction software, you may be able to make small prints taken at ISO 800. The same can't be said for photos taken at ISO 1600 -- there's too much detail loss for them to be of much use.

Overall, the photo quality on the PowerShot SD870 was very good for an ultra-compact camera. Photos were well-exposed, with pleasing, vivid colors. Images have Canon's trademark "smooth" appearance, but that doesn't mean that they're soft -- quite the contrary. As the test above illustrates, noise and noise reduction didn't really become problems until you get to ISO 400 (in good light). The only real negatives were mentioned in the previous tests, and they include blurry corners and occasional vignetting.

As usual, I invite you now to have a look at our photo gallery. View the full size images, print a few if you can, and then decide if the PowerShot SD870's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The PowerShot SD870 IS has the standard Canon movie mode. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 frames/second) with sound until you hit the 4GB file size limit. That takes about 32 minutes. For longer movies you can use the 640 x 480 Long Play mode, which nearly doubles recording time. The quality won't be quite as good (due to the extra compression applied), but you probably won't notice. A high speed memory card is highly recommended for recording videos at these settings.

Another way you can increase recording time is to lower the resolution and/or frame rate. You can drop the resolution to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120, and if you don't mind choppy videos, lower the frame rate to 15 fps.

But wait -- there's more. New to the SD870 is a time-lapse mode, which will capture a frame every 1 or 2 seconds (your choice) for up to two hours. These frames are then converted into a movie and played back at high speed, so things that took forever in real life appear to move quickly.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming (it will be locked when you start filming). You can, however, use the digital zoom. As you'd expect, the image stabilizer is active during movie recording. You can also use the My Colors features, if you desire.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

Here's a sample movie for you:

Click to play movie (18.8 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The PowerShot SD870 has a very nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows, image protection, voice captions, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. When you're zoomed in you can press the Func/Set button and then move from photo to photo at the same magnification setting.

Photos can be rotated and resized, but not cropped. You can apply most of the My Colors feature to your photos, as well. For videos, you can use a "trimming" tool to remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of the clip.

I showed you how well the redeye reduction tool works in the previous section. It will automatically detect the eyes in the photo, even when there are multiple subjects in the photo.

Focus check feature

The focus check feature can be used here in playback mode, or in post-shot review. It allows you to closely inspect a single photo. If there are people in it, it will automatically detect the faces, and you can press the set button to move from face to face. This is a great way to make sure everyone's smiling.

Assigning a category to a photo

The My Category feature lets you assign photos to any of seven possible categories. If you have Auto Category turned on in the recording menu, then this will be done automatically, depending on what scene mode you used to record them. There are three custom categories, though I don't see a way to give them a name instead of the generic "My Category 1". You can select images by their category and display slide shows of them, or delete/protect them.

Jumping through photos by date

The Jump feature lets you move forward or back 10 or 100 photos at a time, and you can also go to the first photo in a category or folder. As the screenshot above shows, you can also jump ahead by date using this feature.

Rotate the four-way controller to get this view

Another way to quickly move through photos is to "rotate" the four-way controller. It's kind of clunky in my opinion, but at least now you know about it.

Sound Recorder

In addition to recording stills and videos, the PowerShot SD870 can also be used for recording audio clips. You can record up to two hours of continuous audio at the sampling rate of your choosing, as long as its 11 kHz, 22 kHz, or 44 kHz. Sound is recorded in stereo.

By default you won't get much information about your photo while in playback mode. But press the Display button and you'll get more info, including a histogram.

The PowerShot SD870 moves between images almost instantly, with your choice of two snazzy transitions. Like all of Canon's other cameras, when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, the photo on the LCD rotates too.

How Does it Compare?

Though it's not perfect, the Canon PowerShot SD870 IS Digital ELPH is a very good choice for those who want an ultra-compact camera with a wide-angle lens, image stabilization, and a huge LCD display. It takes good quality pictures quickly, with an easy-to-use interface and plenty of point-and-shoot features. It remains to be seen how the SD870 compares to its closest competitor, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55, but standing on its own, this PowerShot is a camera that I can recommend.

The PowerShot SD870 is a compact (but not tiny) camera made mostly of metal. There are some flimsy plastic parts, though, including the tripod mount and the door over the battery/memory card compartment. The camera is easy to hold and operate with just one hand, with the important controls in the right places. I wasn't a huge fan of the four-way controller for several reasons: one, your thumb rests on it, making it easy to accidentally change a setting. Two, it's too small. And three, the whole "rotating" thing is a bit awkward.

The SD870 has a nice wide-angle 3.8X zoom lens, with a focal range of 28 - 105 mm. That lens brings some compromises with it, which I'll mention in a moment. Inside the lens is Canon's familiar optical image stabilization system, which does a good job of reducing the chances of blurry photos. Flip the camera around and you'll find an enormous 3-inch LCD display. Images on the screen were sharp, outdoor viewing was great, and subjects were still easy to see in low light. A warning to those of you who wear polarized sunglasses, though: you may have difficulty seeing the screen, so try before you buy! One thing missing on the back of the camera is an optical viewfinder -- there's just no room for one, unfortunately.

The camera has the usual set of point-and-shoot features, plus a few interesting extras. You'll find plenty of scene modes, the fun (but not terribly useful) My Colors feature, and the handy Auto ISO boost option, just to name a few. The camera offers the requisite face detection feature, with this "enhanced" version finding up to 35 faces (!) in the frame. A focus check feature lets you get a close-up look at a photo you've taken. If the camera finds faces, it'll let you check each one individually -- neat. If you're looking for manual controls, you won't find many. There's custom white balance (which is very welcome) and a long shutter speed mode, but that's about it. The SD870 does have a capable movie mode, with VGA quality recording for up to 32 minutes (high quality) or an hour (long play quality). You can also use the camera for recording audio -- up to two hours of continuous sound can be recorded.

Camera performance was excellent. The SD870 is ready to start taking pictures in just 0.7 seconds, which is pretty amazing considering that the lens must be extended first. Focusing delays were minimal: they ranged from 0.1 to 0.3 seconds (best case scenario) to 1 second (worst case scenario). Low light focusing was quick and accurate, thanks to the camera's AF-assist lamp. Shutter lag was minimal, as were shot-to-shot delays. While it's 1.3 frame/second frame rate won't win any awards, the SD870 can keep shooting at that rate until your memory card fills up. Battery life was above average and, like all Canon cameras, the SD870 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

Image quality was very good, though not without some compromises that come from that compact wide-angle lens. On the positive side, the SD870 took well-exposed images, with pleasing colors, good sharpness, and minimal purple fringing. Noise really isn't a problem until the highest ISO settings, though you'll start seeing the effects of noise reduction at ISO 400 (in good light). The bad news is that some photos will have noticeable corner blurriness and minor vignetting (dark corners), with the former being fairly common on ultra-compact cameras. Redeye was a big problem, but at least Canon provides an effective removal tool in playback mode to get rid of this annoyance.

I pretty much hit all of the SD870's negatives in the preceding paragraphs, but here's one more. For some reason, Canon doesn't display the current zoom setting on the LCD. I know they can do it -- their other (non-ELPH) cameras do it -- but for some reason it's been disabled here.

Despite a few annoyances, the PowerShot SD870 is a good choice for those looking for a compact and stylish camera with a huge LCD, wide-angle lens, and image stabilization. Will it be toppled by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55? Keep on eye out for that review soon to find out!

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Wide-angle lens
  • Compact, stylish metal body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Huge 3-inch LCD display; easy to see outdoors and in low light
  • Snappy performance
  • AF-assist lamp, great low light focusing
  • Effective redeye removal tool (and you'll need it)
  • Well-implemented face detection feature; adjustable focus point size (center AF only)
  • Handy Auto ISO boost, focus check features
  • Above average battery life
  • Very good movie mode
  • Optional underwater case
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Corner softness, some vignetting
  • Noise and noise reduction artifacting above ISO 400
  • Redeye a big problem (though the tool in playback mode gets rid of it)
  • Current zoom setting not shown on LCD
  • LCD can be difficult to see when wearing polarized sunglasses (try before you buy!)
  • Small and awkward four-way controller
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on a tripod
  • Cheap plastic door over memory card/battery compartment; plastic tripod mount
  • More manual controls would be nice

Some other compact cameras to consider include the Casio Exilim EX-S880, Fuji FinePix F480, HP Photosmart R847, Kodak EasyShare M883, Nikon Coolpix S51, Olympus FE-290, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55, Pentax Optio V10, Samsung L74 Wide, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD870 IS and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.

Want another opinion?

You can read more reviews of the SD870 at Digital Photography Review, CNET, and Imaging Resource.